"I'm blamed for golf costing so much," Tom Fazio, the renowned golf architect, said recently. He wasn't accepting the blame, you understand, but simply answering a question put to him by a nervous passenger in the SUV that Fazio was driving. The vehicle teetered on a bank of loose sugar sand by a Florida pond, and Fazio was spinning the steering wheel this way and that while looking over one shoulder and then the other. "I'm paranoid about getting stuck," he explained. That was because his construction crews wouldn't let him hear the end of it if they had to rescue him from another bog or briar patch. "The other thing you don't want to do is knock down a tree or hit a sprinkler."
To hear him talk, you'd have thought Fazio demolished golf courses for a living. But this is the 57-year-old designer of 10 courses on the Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses in the U.S. list. This is the man who poured nearly $40 million of a casino-owner's money onto a barren plot of Nevada desert and produced a verdant paradise called Shadow Creek. This is the man who takes mined-out coalfields (Victoria National Golf Club, Newburgh, Ind.) and abandoned quarries (Black Diamond Ranch, Lecanto, Fla.) and turns them into meadows that would make an Elizabethan poet swoon. More important, this is the man who was entrusted with the recent remodeling of Augusta National Golf Club. When Masters chairman Hootie Johnson handed Fazio the keys to the bulldozers last spring, he probably didn't say, "Oh, and Tom, try not to bury the azaleas."
But even golf's most acclaimed designer must occasionally duck a brickbat or two, and that's what prompted the passenger's question—What, if anything, do you get criticized for?—and Fazio's answer, "I'm blamed for golf costing so much." It's true, he said as he got the SUV rolling again on firm ground, that he specializes in big-bucks courses for deep-pocketed clients, but it wasn't always so. "When I started with my uncle [ George Fazio] back in the '60s, it cost $10,000 to build a hole," he said. "I have friends now who say, 'Give me one of those courses at $10,000 a hole.' " He laughed. "I would love to be able to do that, but how? When are we going to see a $2,500 Chevy again? In our society, we don't go backward."
Or do we? A few hours earlier Fazio had sat behind the desk in the Florida office that he first opened in the early 1980s, staring through sliding-glass doors at the Intracoastal Waterway and across to Jupiter Island, where he and his wife, Susan, had purchased a condo this winter. On the wall behind him were large portraits of his six children, ages 12 to three—or at least that's how old they were in 1988, when he and his family moved from North Palm Beach to Hendersonville, N.C. "To see those pictures and look out this door, it's d�j� vu," he said. Then he looked at a framed photograph of a smiling man with dark bushy hair and thick glasses. "That's me, a hundred courses ago. Where did the time go?"
The truth is, Fazio always knew he would return to the state where he got his start. He and George, a successful Tour pro, started making the trek from Philadelphia to Florida in the late 1960s, and in 1973 they moved the operation south. Tom's office is right across the highway from the Jupiter Hills Club, the project that put George and his nephew on the map when it opened in 1970. "Tom ran the company from the beginning," says Andy Banfield, one of nine senior designers working for Tom Fazio out of offices in three states. "George visualized and Lou Cappelli did the shaping, but Tom did the routing plans. He was running projects when he was barely able to drive."
The Tom Fazio style, his competitors note with consternation, is no style at all. Pete Dye has his railroad-tie bunkers and Ted Robinson his desert waterfalls, but Fazio builds the course he sees in the irises of a client's eyes. "He has boundless energy, and I would guess he has a photographic memory," says senior designer Tom Griswald. "He remembers dates, names, things that happened to people's kids back in 1955." A Fazio site visit is a misnomer, because he gives the prospective client more scrutiny than the land. "It's nice to have a good piece of land," Fazio said, "because it costs less to build a great course, but the key ingredient is the client's commitment to quality golf." How many rich guys call Fazio headquarters saying they want to build one of the world's best golf courses? One a day, on average. It's easier to marry Liza Minnelli than it is to hire Tom Fazio.
"He didn't go to college, but not a day goes by that I don't learn from him," says Beau Welling, the investment banker Fazio hired five years ago to serve as his business manager. "He has developed a brand by emphasizing the value of intangible assets, like name and reputation. If you put it on paper and took it up to the Harvard Business School, they'd say he's crazy."
Crazy in a try-to-please-everyone way, as Fazio proved on a foray into book publishing. A decade ago he agreed to collaborate with old friend and journalist Cal Brown on a richly illustrated coffee-table book. Fazio's conditions: He would pay the book's estimated production costs of $350,000, and all revenue had to go to the Tom Fazio Children's Charity Fund. Then Fazio got the owners of 50 of his courses to donate $7,500 each to the charity, as a trade-off for being featured in the book.
Next came the hard part—deciding which of the 50 courses to put on the book's cover. "I didn't want to make one club happy and hurt the feelings of 49 others," Fazio said. So he paid for 50 four-color dust jackets and arranged for each course to have an additional eight-page customized insert with text and color photos included in the copies of the edition that bore that course's cover. Fazio then took the 50 supplements, bound them into yet another book and printed a limited run of 500 to give to charity auctions. Golf Course Designs wound up costing him $750,000, but those who know Fazio well say slighting even one client would have cost him sleep.
"You do the best you can," Fazio said. "Why? My wife is really into these questions. She's a Ph.D." You don't need an advanced degree to know why Fazio felt sentimental. With the last of his children out of the house, he no longer needs to fly back to Hendersonville on most nights in his six-passenger Turbo Commander, as he did faithfully from 1988 until last year. Florida is now his winter headquarters and the world his oyster as he darts around the country designing courses and playing a few of the ones he has already built. (He's an eight-handicapper.)